I was engaged in a debate over slavery in America yesterday and the following proposition I put forward was being contested: a majority of slaves brought to America from Africa were sold to Europeans by slave traders as opposed to having been captured by Europeans without payment. Every source I could find on the matter verified this to be true but I could not find an exact percentage of purchased slaves vs captured slaves and my opponent decided to use this as an out to discard my entire argument.

Here is one example of what I found from a 1995 CNN article:

Based on her studies, Perbi says that European slave traders, almost without exception, did not themselves capture slaves. They bought them from other Africans, usually kings or chiefs or wealthy merchants.

Perbi stating "almost without exception" seems to imply a very high percentage or an overwhelming majority (greater than 90%) but as I stated this ambiguity was enough for my opponent to write me off.

Is there any concrete data on this or do we only know it was a majority?

Edit: I've rephrased the question and updated the clarification to be more precise.

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    Not sure I understand - there is an existing narrative, which you cite. Is there as reason you doubt Dr. Perbi's scholarship & authority? If it is just that your opponent refused to accept any source that did not include the figure 100%, then I suggest that there is no point arguing with that individual. Please clarify the question so that we understand what it is you're looking for. (And welcome to the site!!)
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:50
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    By 1861 when the Civil War started importation of slaves into the U.S. had been illegal for almost two generations - the ban becoming complete in 1808. So nearly 100% of American slaves at that point were born and raised in the U.S. It seems you and your opponent were arguing two different things. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:53
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    The point is that Europeans capturing slaves with no African help were a exception, the figures would be too small - difficult to estimate accurately. Why would Europeans alone run a risky slave raid in unknown country if slave markets were well established and many slave-holding tribes would work with them? The Arabs had been slaving blacks for almost a millennium before the Europeans. Moreover, the Bantu had been expanding in Africa for the last millennia (plural), and it was not a nice friendly freedom-lover endeavor. They would see enemy tribes as targets, not 'fellow black brothers'.
    – Luiz
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 16:22
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    @Spencer It isn't meant to mitigate anything, it is meant to accurately describe a historical reality, something that a jarring amount of individuals want to ignore.
    – SoraPro
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 16:42
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    @SoraPro: Much better. Thank you, and well done. I hope you realize that I was on your side - if I hadn't been and seen value in the question's potential I would have simply voted to close, down-voted, or both; and moved on silently. Questions must be unambiguous and stand on their own - or be closed. It's the nature of the site. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 19:44

1 Answer 1


From the evidence below, failing very strong evidence that it was routine for merchant European slave traders to hunt down slaves themselves along the Slave Coast, the percentage of slaves delivered to the New World that were purchased from black slavers must be very close to 100%. There is simply no business model, consistent with the slave trade as we understand it, that supports or includes the practice of idling for weeks and months of slave hunting along the African coast instead of just purchasing the abundant slaves to be had there.

There is, just on its own, overwhelming circumstantial evidence that your premise is true:

  1. The well documented system of Triangular Trade between Europe, the Slave Coast, and the West Indies and American slave markets.

    enter image description here

    The only point of carrying commodities and specie to the Slave Coast was to use in purchase of, or barter for, slaves. No merchant could make a profit carrying these items thousands of kilometres just to dump them - that the slave ships arrived at the Slave Coast with these items and left with them replaced by slaves leads to a self-evident conclusion.

  2. Sub-saharan Africa was a very unfriendly place for Europeans prior to the late 19th Century. Not only unfriendly natives quite capable, in numbers, of overwhelming a small ship's crew, but also diseases to which Europeans had little resistance. Extended stays on the coast accompanied by frequent visits into the jungle would have resulted in crew losses that could be ill afforded.

    Further merchant ships' crews were few in number - the bare minimum needed to maneuver the vessel in a sea-worthy manner and perhaps a passenger or two. It would not have been possible for such crews, of a dozen or two, to capture slaves except by the handful from the coastal tribes - after which the unfavourable numbers would have required them to move to another such location, and another, and another, in order to fill a ship with 400-500 slaves. The logistics are untenable, and the second ship to attempt such would be lucky to escape alive.

    Combined, these two factors make it completely untenable for any large scale attempt by European merchants to "self-harvest" the millions of slaves that were transported to the New World prior to Britain's enforcement of a ban on the Slave Trade in the 19th Century.

    Britain arrange treaties with Portugal Sweden and Denmark, 1810–1814, whereby they agreed to end or restrict their trading. These were preliminary to the Congress of Vienna negotiations that Castlereagh dominated and which resulted in a general declaration condemning the slave trade. ... Eventually, in [1845], an arrangement was reached between London and Washington. With the arrival of a staunchly anti-slavery government in Washington in 1861, the Atlantic slave trade was doomed. In the long run, Castlereagh's strategy on how to stifle the slave trade proved successful.


    The Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron, established in 1808, grew by 1850 to a force of some 25 vessels, which were tasked with combating slavery along the African coast. Between 1807 and 1860, the Royal Navy's Squadron seized approximately 1,600 ships involved in the slave trade and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard these vessels.

But beyond all this circumstantial evidence is the [direct history and accounts of the participants]4. While it was taking place there was no public shame in this trade - and no guile or deception involved in it until after 1808.

As of 1778, Thomas Kitchin estimated that Europeans were bringing an estimated 52,000 slaves to the Caribbean yearly, with the French bringing the most Africans to the French West Indies (13,000 out of the yearly estimate). The Atlantic slave trade peaked in the last two decades of the 18th century, during and following the Kongo Civil War. Wars among tiny states along the Niger River's Igbo-inhabited region and the accompanying banditry also spiked in this period. Another reason for surplus supply of enslaved people was major warfare conducted by expanding states, such as the kingdom of Dahomey, the Oyo Empire, and the Asante Empire.

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    Thanks for the answer Pieter. It is very informative and everything you've stated appears to be verifiable. My only concern with it is it does not provide me with a statistical figure for how many slaves were captured vs purchased. It is extremely possible no such figure exists but this is what I am wanting to know. I will leave the thread unanswered for now to see if anyone else has any input.
    – SoraPro
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 20:55
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    You won’t get a statistical figure due to the nature of the documentary record of small private ventures conducting eventually unlawful trade. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 23:28
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    @SamuelRussell: The vast majority of the trade was complete before the British began enforcing a ban on it around 1808, having peaked 1 to 2 decades earlier. The peak had passed, largely because the demand for slaves could now largely be met by supply born and raised in the New World. So the "eventually unlawful" part of your comment seems inaccurate to me. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 23:34
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    @TomasBy: But that trade is not illegal trade going to the U.S. - prior to 1837 it is legal trade going to Jamaica, other British West Indies possessions, and the Spanish, French and Portuguese possessions of the West Indies and South America. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 23:55
  • Should have used a semi colon before conducting. As the key point is small venture document production and survival. But even a 40 year additional decline in document production and survival would defeat an acceptable statistical measure; had the first hundreds of years been large state based. Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 1:47

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